You walk into a food court and your choices include Athenian Grill, Bourbon ‘n’ Toulouse, Atomic Ramen, Taste of India, and Smashing Tomato pizza. Are you in a trendy food court?
Nope, it’s the University of Kentucky’s dining hall.
And most days of the week, it is packed with students and faculty who are lining up for gyros with Greek fries and tzatziki sauce, dumplings and kimchi, or chicken etouffee.
The pilot program that began last year has expanded this year to include more local restaurants and is spreading to other colleges.
“It’s flourishing, everybody’s happy, everybody’s making money and the feedback from students is phenomenal,” said Pulkit Vigg, of Aramark, which has the contract to provide all food services to the campus.
In the first year the restaurants accounted for 65 percent of the $1.1 million in Kentucky business impact purchases for the year, according to UK.
Altogether last year UK Dining purchased more than $2.6 million in locally produced or processed food, a 5 percent increase over the year before and 146 percent more than the Aramark contract with UK required.
That’s a big shift from the first year of the school’s contract with Aramark, when the food service provider’s biggest purchases were soft drinks and ice, and local restaurants felt squeezed out by chains brought onto campus.
Dan Wu, owner of Atomic Ramen, said Wednesday as he served up pork belly on bao buns to students that on his busiest days he’ll serve up to 2,400 portions of dumplings.
“This is the kind of thing I wouldn’t have thought about. It never would have occurred to me to come inside the university but it’s worked out really, really well,” Wu said.
Vigg said the idea started with his arrival in Lexington in January 2018. The title he prefers is “resident foodie.” It’s even on his business card.
“That was the first day of Champions Kitchen opening at the student center, and it was the bright, shiny jewel, the best place on campus. It was gorgeous,” Vigg said. “Then I looked at The 90 (UK’s other main dining hall) and it was four years old at that point and wasn’t that shiny any more.”
He started looking for a way to reinvigorate the food offerings on the east side of campus.
“The first place I went to was The Barn at the Summit, and I said we need to sort of replicate this at The 90,” Vigg said. His goal became bringing in the local food scene and further expanding the company’s use of locally produced meats and produce.
“To get the community involved continues to be huge for us,” Vigg said. “Aramark cannot be just a big company at a school. To be successful we must include community partners. And with so much of our emphasis here on Kentucky Proud in our contract, it was a no-brainer.”
He recruited Athenian Grill owner Ilias Pappas, who set up kiosk inside the dining halls to serve his food. It was a big hit right away, and quickly expanded to the concession stand at Kroger Field. That was a bigger gamble, Pappas said, because they had no idea if anyone would eat Greek for at a football game.
Turns out they will. And Cajun and lots of other non-traditional foods.
The program now has six or seven partners, with more in negotiations, Vigg said. And it helped to broaden the palate for students.
“There was a dearth of ethnic cuisines in our portfolio,” Vigg said. A lot of students only knew ramen as the square packages of cheap noodles, he said.
Besides Athenian Grill, Aramark has signed on Atomic Ramen, Marksbury Farm’s Pasture, Bella Notte’s Smashing Tomato, Bourbon ‘n’ Toulouse, Taste of India, Lexington Pasta Garage, House of ‘Cue from Irvine, and is working on getting Crank and Boom and Taylor Belle ice creams involved.
The dining halls also have launched a popular salad bar with as much Kentucky-grown produce as they can source from local growers including organic producers Elmwood Stock Farm and Crooked Row.
For Bourbon ‘n’ Toulouse, which serves at Champions every two weeks, the increased business has mandated they finally get a bigger kitchen up and running. Co-owner Kevin Heathcoat said that the restaurant is opening a kitchen on the other side of Euclid Avenue to serve catering and other large-scale needs.
“It’s really an amazing concept that UK dining is test-marketing here in Lexington,” Heathcoat said. “We are selling more food. And, what’s more beneficial, we’re making new friends and new customers. It’s a captive audience here. But they have to eat at other places on the weekends ... and a lot of them are freshmen, so we’re getting exposure we’ve never been able to get before.”
Pappas said that it gives the restaurants a guaranteed income — they are paid a flat rate per day — and gives them access to a dining population that they might not reach otherwise: 10,000 student, faculty and staff meal plans. (The public can also dine; it’s about $10.50 and it’s all you can eat.)
That has allowed Pappas to expand his scope. He’s now doing two non-Greek concepts for UK as well as operating the K-Lair restaurant.
“I think we’re doing more than 35,000 meals a week of all our concepts at the University of Kentucky,” Pappas said.
He’s also now operating at the University of Louisville, has done Athenian Grill pop-ups at Eastern Kentucky University, and will be looking at expanding to more campuses with the entree that Aramark provides.
Next week, visitors from Clemson will be on campus to see the program in operation, and corporate officials from Aramark will be looking at how to scale up the successful Kentucky operation for more locations.
Vigg said that Aramark is very high on the program and wants to replicate UK’s success on other campuses.
Because college is about more than classes.
“We are here to educate. I’m hoping all the students who come through UK, as they go around the world, won’t be scared of tasting new cuisines,” Vigg said. “They are developing their palates as they are getting an education. This is social education.”